U.N. Abuzz Over Surprise U.S. Loss of Seat on Human Rights Panel

The surprise loss of the U.S. seat on the top United Nations human rights body will stop Washington from exercising its sometimes lonely vote to protect Israel, criticize China and take other stands of principle.

The world body's Palais des Nations was abuzz Friday with diplomats speculating on whether the United States lost its seat on the 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission because of irritation over its positions or because it just didn't try hard enough.

The ouster of the United States while nations like Sudan, Uganda and Sierra Leone were granted membership also caused many to ask how effective the commission would be in probing rights abuses around the world.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the United States would remain vigilant. "This will not stop this president or this country from speaking out strongly on matters of human rights," he said.

Some diplomats feared the decision would spark a backlash from Washington, where some conservative forces already are deeply critical of the United Nations. They noted that the U.S. backlog of payments to the United Nations has yet to be resolved.

Many suggested the loss may have been a reaction to President Bush's decision to pull out of the 1997 Kyoto treaty to curb global warming and the sounding of the death knell of the 1972 treaty on missile defense, regarded by many countries as the basis for nuclear arms stability.

That came on top of the Clinton administration's rejection of the treaty to ban land mines, the U.S. Senate's 1999 refusal to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty and more recent coolness toward the creation of an international criminal court.

"The overall effect is that they are looking inward instead of trying to see that the United States is part of the world and they have to take part of the responsibility," said Anita Klum, secretary-general of the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights.

The United States has been a member of the commission ever since it was founded in 1947 at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose bust, alongside that of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, holds a place of honor at the formal entrance to the Palais.

The United States lost its seat in a secret ballot by the U.N. Economic and Social Council at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday. The council chooses the commission's new members to three-year terms. Roughly a third are elected each year.

The United States will still be able to address the commission as an observer and will be able to sponsor resolutions and lobby for support, but some diplomats said the loss of the U.S. vote would nonetheless affect the whole institution.

The United States clashed with a phalanx of influential countries on crucial votes again this year. This time the opposition was perhaps better organized, some diplomats said.

China and Cuba, two targets of U.S.-backed resolutions, have been relentless in their lobbying and campaigning against the United States.

China fended off the commission's resolution aimed at it, and Cuba nearly did. Both of them received support from Russia, India and Pakistan among other countries at odds with the United States.

"This is a sad day for the cause of human rights in China," said a statement from the Washington office of the Free China Movement. "It is likely that China will now be able to further escalate its notorious abuses with total impunity."

At times, the United States even stood against its allies in the European Union. It refused to support the right to cheap AIDS drugs in poor countries or to criticize Israel's settlement policy.

Israel, however, appreciated the support.

"I praise the United States for its role in the recent session on human rights, especially regarding the Middle East issues and the stand on Israel," said Israeli Ambassador Yaakov Levy.

Puzzling some diplomats was whether the United States failed to campaign hard enough for its seat, perhaps because it was between ambassadors.

As a superpower, they said, the United States could have used backroom procedures to make sure the Western group sent forward only three nominees for its three seats.

Instead, it nominated four candidates. France got 52 votes, Austria 41 votes, Sweden 32 votes, edging out the United States which had 29.

Latin America and Africa both sent forward only the nominees to match the number of seats allotted to them.